Fernanda has no happy memories of her early family life. ‘My mother, she was a very cruel lady, she wasn’t there for us children. She would strangle you, leave you fighting for your life.’
Fernanda and her siblings had different fathers, all absent, and by the time she was four, each child had been ‘dumped’ at a different destination. ‘Some of my family went to good homes; unfortunately, I was unlucky.’
She ended up with the Sisters of Mercy on a rural property. Discipline was harsh. ‘There were beatings with a razor strap, bread and water, a bucket in a cell with bedding made of coconut straw.’ She recalls being locked up for days ‘to calm down’. Back in the dining room she became ill – and was forced to ‘eat my own vomit’.
And then there were the ‘walks’. Some priests would target a child and take them for a walk – across the paddocks, behind the shed, somewhere out of sight. When she was seven, Fernanda was taken to the tennis court, ‘and then he proceeded to touch me’.
‘I shouted “Leave me alone!” and started kicking and fighting.’ Though she resisted there was no-one to appeal to: Fernanda says the nuns knew what was happening and turned a blind eye. ‘If you tried to complain, you got smacked across the face and told, “Shut up! It didn’t happen”.’
She was moved to other facilities and into foster care, but at age 14 Fernanda was determined to make her own way. ‘I headed for the bush, picking up work on farms … I’ve never been sacked from any job – but I was outspoken. If they didn’t like me, I moved on.’
Unlike many such runaways, she managed to stay clear of authorities. ‘Once, at Mount Isa, they did have a search party looking for me. But I hid in the most dangerous place – in the tunnels of the lead creek that comes from the copper mine. Stayed there for days, they didn’t come near me.’
Fernanda married early, at 19, but followed a very different path to her mother. After more than 50 years together, she and her husband have a tribe of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
But life hasn’t always been rosy. Memories of the physical and sexual abuse drove her to several suicide attempts. And when she worked as a laundry supervisor at a Catholic boarding school, she saw evidence that children were still preyed on. Many children were bedwetters, and when they brought their sheets to her they spoke of several priests who ‘fumbled around with them and they didn’t like it’.
In later years she was involved with Towards Healing but did not receive any compensation. Today, in her 70s, she hopes for some modest redress – ‘Enough for some covering on the floor, just the kitchen, hallway and lounge, a bit of painting … What’s left of my life, wow, you’re leaving it to the end, ’cause youse have cheated me out of it all!’
In the end, the strength that saw Fernanda strike out on her own at 14 still sustains her. ‘I’m a battler, I’m a survivor. I’ve got a roof over my head, clothes on my back, a meal on the table – and if I can help someone, I will.’
So too do words spoken long ago by her grandfather. ‘Pops said, “Fernanda, we’re not put on this Earth to be used and abused. You know what’s right. Don’t let them pull the wool over your eyes”.’